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Cullasaja Gorge Fire Department passes county inspection after removing over 20 volunteers from roster

After 21 volunteer firefighters within the Cullasaja Gorge Fire & Rescue, including the top three ranking members and the incoming Chief, were removed from the membership roster last week after a vote to prohibit people from outside of the fire district from volunteering Macon County Emergency Management Director Warren Cabe said the department passed a county inspection. 

According to Cabe, the inspection was conducted on Tuesday and since last Thursday, 18 new members have completed applications to join the department, bringing the department’s total roster to 32 people. 

“We looked at the department’s 32 member roster and determined that 22 of those individuals had sufficient enough training to be considered active members,” said Cabe. “With the new members on the roster, Cullasaja was able to successfully pass the inspection and are in compliance with their contractual obligations to the county.” 

Cabe said although the department met the requirements of the inspection, the county intended to continuing monitoring the department over the next three months to ensure they are able to maintain the required roster as well as monitor call responses to ensure the community is adequately covered in the case of an emergency. 

Cabe said that over the weekend the department responded to three calls and was able to have 5-6 individuals respond to all three calls, which is average. 

During a closed door vote last Thursday, about 40 members of the Cullasaja community voted to approve a policy change that prohibits anyone who does not own property, have their name on the deed to that property, and meet residency requirements for the type of structure on that property, from serving on the fire department. 

The vote took place the same night that Tubby Zachary, who has served the department for the last eight years, spending the last two years as assistant chief, was set to take over as the Chief. Although Zachary lives within the fire district for the majority of the year, because he does not own property, he, along with 20 other volunteers, are no longer allowed to serve the department. 

Many of the 21 members who were no longer eligible as of last week have spent nearly a decade with the Cullasaja Gorge Fire Department, joining at the request of former board members due to a need for additional volunteers within the district. 

Over the years, volunteer fire departments have struggled to meet roster requirements due to a decline in individuals signing up to volunteer. To address this, it has become standard practice for individuals who do not live within a specific fire district to volunteer with neighboring departments, which was the case at Cullasaja Gorge Fire & Rescue until Thursday night.

After voting to abruptly close Thursday night’s meeting to only allow property owners from within the Cullasaja Fire District to attend and vote, a group of about 50 individuals met regarding membership requirements. 

Bobby Henry, who previously served as a paid member of Cullasaja Gorge before quitting to take another position with Squad 4 with the county, spoke to community members to inform them that the Cullasaja Gorge Fire Department exists to serve the community therefore, the operations of the fire department is ultimately up to them. Henry also noted that the individuals on the fire department who had just turned in their gear would allegedly check into the fire department as if they responded to calls — which means they would be credited with the $15 provided to volunteers for answering a call — however, those members never actually responded to calls. 

Henry did not provide any evidence to the claim nor provided the members he was referring to with an opportunity to address the claim. The accusation that volunteers were claiming to respond to calls was the center point for prohibiting people who live outside of the fire district from serving on the board, however, there is no record in department minutes of there ever being an issue or claim that such actions were occurring. 

During the closed meeting Thursday night, after growing frustrated with the accusations being made against them, a group of volunteers entered the meeting with their gear in hand. David Dabney, who attended the meeting last Thursday, demanded the volunteers to leave the meeting twice, at which point Baird called for law enforcement to intervene. At that point, the group left behind their firefighting gear and left the meeting.

Shortly thereafter, a motion was made by a member of the community group to change the department policy to no longer allow volunteer firefighters to join the department if they do not reside within the Cullasaja Fire District. The motion passed with 43 votes in favor of the change — however there was no verification regarding the residency or property ownership of those who voted. 

On a motion made by Melissa Henry, Bobby Henry’s wife, Bobby Henry was then appointed interim chief of the fire department due to Zachary no longer being eligible for the post he was elected to despite serving eight years with the department, since he resided within the fire district but did not own property. 

Henry was then voted as Interim Chief by the community members, not the fire department, until a time when another election can be held and voted on by the community. Generally, the ranking members of a volunteer fire department are elected and voted on by the volunteer firefighters within the department, not the board. 

Dozens of Macon County residents have taken to the Cullasaja Gorge Fire & Rescue Department Facebook page to ask questions and share concerns, however comments that are not in favor of the department are deleted. 

Mark Lamb, who was elected to Chairman of the department Board on Thursday has since tendered his resignation. 

The following request has been made to Interim Fire Chief Bobby Henry, however as of 5 p.m. on Tuesday, a response or acknowledgment of the request has not been made by Henry. 

  • 1) The current bylaws of the fire department. 
  • 2) The current bylaws of the Fire Department Board if they are different than the bylaws of the department. 
  • 3) A current roster for members of the fire department with their property addresses as well as training hours. 
  • 4) Call history for the department for the last 3 years. 
  • 5) A copy of the department budget. 
  • 6) Names and addresses of all board members. 
  • 7) A copy of the legal notice published in the newspaper regarding the Thursday, July 1 meeting. 
  • 8) Date and time for the next board meeting. 
  • 9) The minutes of the board meetings since January 2021.

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